Monday, 16 January 2017


Second-Hand Time: The last of the Soviets, An oral history by Svetlana Alexievich
A quite remarkable collection of voices by the Nobel Prize-winner in literature, charting the disintegration of the USSR through the experiences of ordinary people, and intimating the kind of riven social terrain upon which any new society must be built. 

Where the Jews Aren't: The sad and absurd story of Birobidzhan, Russia's Jewish autonomous region by Masha Gessen
In 1929, with the support of Jewish Communist intellectuals and Yiddishists, preparations were made to establish a Jewish homeland in Russia's Far East (no, this book was not written by Michael Chabon!), and tens of thousands of Soviet and international Jews moved there. With Stalin's purges, the idea fell from favour and the settlers were unsupported. Another influx following World War 2 increased their numbers, but, being easily identified, the Birobidzhanians were increasingly subjected to persecution. An interesting sidelight on Soviet history.

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale
In an attempt to provoke a political crisis in Russia that would take them out of World War 1, the German command 'enabled' Lenin's return by train from exile in Switzerland. Merridale's very readable book traces the journey, the personalities on the sealed train (in which the Germans and the Russians were divided by a chalk line across the middle of the carriage), the struggle between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks for supremacy in Russia, and the new path taken by Russian and world politics as a result of that journey.

The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard by Ivan Chistyakov
Astonishing and compelling, this book reproduces a first-hand account of the miseries and rigours of life in a Soviet prison camp, as observed by a senior guard at the Baikal Amur Corrective Labour Camp (Bamlag) in 1935-36.

The Soviet Century by Moshe Lewin
“Probably no other Western historian of the USSR combines Moshe Lewin’s personal experience of living with Russians from Stalin’s day—as a young wartime soldier—to the post-communist era, with so profound a familiarity with the archives and the literature of the Soviet era. His reflections on the “Soviet Century” are an important contribution to emancipating Soviet history from the ideological heritage of the last century and should be essential reading for all who wish to understand it.” – Eric Hobsbawm
How did a group of professors, idealists and entrepreneurs create an intellectual pressure-cooker that made them the envy of the scientific world? And how did Stalin's megalomania and insecurity derail the great experiment in 'rational' government? "A dazzling, often astonishing prism through which to view the Soviet experiment." Peter Pomeranzev

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